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Musicians and Madmen

PostPosted: Sat Jul 09, 2005 10:22 am
by howard male
I thought I'd start a separate strand on what became a fascinating tangent when we were discussing Darko Rundek's flawed performance on Charlie's show a couple of weeks ago. There seemed plenty of mileage still left in the idea of suggesting musicians that defy my rigid, and in some ways totally unreasonable categorisations.

What revived my interest in the subject was 'Imagine...Being a Concert Pianist' on BBC 1 last Wednesday It both added fuel to my argument that musicians fall into two catagories - highly skilled and uncreative, and averagely to unskilled, but highly creative - and punched one or two holes in it. Looking at the various child prodigies featured I was reminded of being at art school.

Winchester had a classical music department, and come lunchtime, as the students filed into the canteen, you could immediately tell who the music students were. They were mousy, almost sexless creatures, who were clearly still being dressed by there mother, and in some cases having their hair cut by their mother. Their interaction with the world around them seemed minimal, and lunch was simply fuel to be consumed before they went back to their studies.

By contrast, we art students if anything tried too hard to express individuality, wore clothes that belonged to our mothers, and saw lunchtime as an infinitely extendable period in which eating was only a small part - smoking four ounces of Old Holborn and putting the world to rights could take all day. It was hard to take on board that these two disparate groups were both involved in the arts. When I came to form a band, it didn't even cross my mind to go to the music department - if there Painting drew a blank, then I was sure to find, at least a singer, in Fashion and Textiles.

But now watching Alan Yentob's documentary I was now looking at this same stereotype again - struggling with basic social interaction, but possessing extraordinary skill for hitting all the notes in the right order at the right speed on the grand piano.

But this was turned out to be only half the story. Hundreds of these poor children would loose their childhood's and teenage years spending eight hours a day at the piano, only to find out at the end of it, they were not quite good enough. A mere three players in a thousand (or some such ridiculous percentage) would go on to be concert pianists, the rest...who knows what became of them. Yentob's aim was to find out what made these three special. It turned out that they were all, in one way or another, creative, idiosyncratic characters, who instinctively knew that playing Bach wasn't simply about following the score - they emoted, they felt the music, they visualised things as they played. They were essentially creative performers rather than just performers.

The moment that most stuck in my mind, was a close-up shot of young Chinese star Lang Lang's hands as he finishing the quietest of pieces. They floating like disembodied entities above the keys, before coming to rest on the appropriate note, as a butterfly might land on a leaf. This is where training had turned into intuition and artistry. This is where fingers have become airborne dancers rather than just searchers out of notes.

Most of these keen, earnest youngsters just looked at their teacher blankly when she asks them to describe what emotion they are trying to convey when performing a piece. Only the smallest minority seemed to know what was being got at - what the teacher wanted from them. The impression I got was that if they could tell the difference between a sterile performance and an emotive one, then they would eventually deliver a moving and idiosyncratic performance themselves.

So I learnt, or at least had reinforced, the notion that truly great virtuoso playing requires creative thinking, and is a rare, rare thing. The question that remained was - did any of these geniuses have any compositional gift? It seemed not. And if not, then my theory still holds water - the more skilled the musician, the less likely they are to be capable of original musical thought.

Connected to all this is the thought that many of our best songwriters have been at the very least eccentric, and at most borderline insane. Perhaps these very personality qualities prohibit eight-hours-a-day practice sessions!

being brian Wilson

PostPosted: Mon Jul 11, 2005 3:36 pm
by garth cartwright
I,ve nothing to add to what Howard has written other than I interviewed Brian Wilson last night at the Montreux Jazz Festival and then went to watch him play his hits for 90 minutes and the difference between the freedom he finds in making music and the toil of everything else - not just answering questions but even walking looks to involve turmoil - suggests how musical creativity for those as gifted as wilson appears as a sweet refuge from the terrors of existence. Brians one of those rare individuals who has stared too long into the abyss and still lives what i gues u can call a "normal" life, his musical talent being his saviour. On stage he sits and stares straight ahead, unblinking, paying no mind to the audience or other musicians, conducting himself with his right hand - it would appear sad if the music wasn,t so beautiful. His current set is all Beach Boys standards and he is backed by a fabulous big band who really not only love the music but know how to rock like bands once did, yknow, full of joy and excitement at making such great sounds. And Brian is in good voice. I was expecting something like Little Richards recent travesty gigs in London but this was really really good. Oh, I asked Brian to tell me something about the band and he said they were a Beach Boys tribute band he went and saw play an LA club and he liked them so much he went backstage and asked them if they wanted to join him and tour the world! Too cool! And their harmonies are fabulous!

Brian - he's not the son of god, he's a very naughty boy

PostPosted: Mon Jul 11, 2005 5:14 pm
by Phil Meadley
Why are people still so obsessed with Brian Wilson? Not to knock Garth's trip to Montreux (I went there last year - very nice), but I've never really understood Wilson's almost reverential appeal. I admire the guy for having the bottle to get up on stage with all his mental-illness problems, but I never really got why he, or the Beach Boys were so popular. What make's him a better songwriter than anyone else?

Perhaps someone can explain what I'm missing out on? I thought the couple (or was it just a girl?) actually crowdsurfing with a surfboard at his Glasto gig was pretty cool though.



Princes amongst men

PostPosted: Mon Jul 11, 2005 6:12 pm
by David Godwin
Apologies for asking about this subject, when I put it another thread, but it may have got "buried", and I'm afraid my thread discipline has never shown much logic. My question is, having read the book, is there any news on the CD associated with Garth's book?

PostPosted: Mon Jul 11, 2005 7:13 pm
by jayne
All the musicians I know are “madâ€

Brian and Gypsies

PostPosted: Tue Jul 12, 2005 12:02 am
by garth cartwright
Phil, if u never liked the Beach Boys then, to me, you are missing out on the best white American pop music of the 1960s. Admittedly the cult of Brian that fixates on albums (pet sounds and smile) tends to get very mojoish and boring (and both those albums, while possessing a few lovely tunes, are overrated - as are all albums held up reverentially as classic, and that includes any by the Beatles and Marvin Gaye's Whats Goin On). But the Beach Boys as a singles band: I cant think of much other music that captures the sheer joy and wonder of being alive as I Get Around or God Only Knows or Good Vibrations. For me, that is. Phil Spector liked to describe his music as "little symphonies for the kids" and listening to Brian and band last night i found the music youth symphonies in the very best sense.

As for the Princes album - Im talking with Berlins Asphalt Tango at the moment so lets hope for later in the year. Fingers crossed!

PostPosted: Tue Jul 12, 2005 2:15 am
by Adam Blake
Hey Garth, The Beach Boys didn't make the best white American pop music of the 1960s, that was Phil Spector and The Brill Building crowd. The Beach Boys were good, yeah, but not THAT good... Yes, I know, it's entirely subjective, but it's fun! ... Also, George 'Shadow' Morton ("When I say I'm in love, you'd best believe I'm in LERVE, L-U-V!")

Don't forget...

PostPosted: Tue Jul 12, 2005 6:24 am
by David Godwin
....the album "All Summer Long", which has such a relaxed feel to me. Were there ever better Beach Boys harmonies than on "Hush a bye", a rare example of a genuine cover versiion.

Beach Boys

PostPosted: Tue Jul 12, 2005 9:00 am
by Con Murphy
When it comes to Beach Boys discussions, I usually fall between more stools than a bar-fly with double-vision. I can’t understand what seems to be an almost grotesque fascination with Brian Wilson, and I did have this fear that his gigs would resemble some kind of Elephant Manesque circus. However, it does appear that this is not the case, so I’m happy to have been proven wrong.

Is Pet Sounds overrated? Quite possibly, but there are some great songs on there, so that puts it ahead of many other over-exposed ‘classics*’. I have this horrible suspicion that without God Only Knows we wouldn’t have got Coldplay and Keane, though. But that’s like blaming Karl Marx for Stalin, which is probably a bit unfair. Does it matter, though, whether they were or weren’t better than Jan and Dean (or was it Pearl and Dean – some great harmonies there as well), the Brill Building or the wonderful Shangri-las? All that stuff’s great as well, and it’s all out there to enjoy.

And on a slightly different subject related to Garth and CDs – are we ever likely to get to hear any of that LA/Mexican music that you featured in the current fRoots (La Reconquista, fRoots 265), here in the UK? It sounds fascinating.

*I measure the credibility of Top 100 Rock Albums using my own patented PS/JT index. Assuming that they are destined to appear in every list going, if you take Pet Sounds’ position away from that of U2’s Joshua Tree, then the higher the score, the more credible the list.

PostPosted: Tue Jul 12, 2005 10:13 am
by howard male
I enjoyed your poignant little report from Montreaux, Garth, and agree with you that the Beach Boys finest moments are their epic singles and that the doodly later albums are inexplicably overrated.

Con wrote -

I have this horrible suspicion that without God Only Knows we wouldn't have got Coldplay and Keane, though. But that's like blaming Karl Marx for Stalin, which is probably a bit unfair.

No Con, that's like blaming Nietzsche for Hitler! Speaking as a take-them-or-leave-them Beach Boys fan, I can say, with some objectivity, that 'God Only Knows' is an exquisitely structured pop song which takes wistfulness, melancholy and love-sickness and elevates them into the noblest of sentiments with the most majestic of melodies.

Coldplay (so aptly named) take those same emotions and wallow in them, like pigs in schmaltz. They simply find two or three minor chords, knock out some adolescent drivel, which to the gullible young, passes for profound, enigmatic lyrics, and then finally wrap the whole soggy package in state-of-the-art production. Which in their case means drowning it in reverb, so it sounds like every song was recorded in a cathedral.

But haven't we got off the beaten track a bit here? Didn't Brian Wilson start as a lucid musical genius and end up as a walking clothes-horse due to the bucket-loads of drugs he took? I suspect that playing music to him is like riding a bike to the rest of us - you never forget how to do it. And so he can perform fairly decent concerts. Regardless of what's left between his ears, his ears themselves are still in working order.

There are no facts, only interpretations

PostPosted: Tue Jul 12, 2005 10:38 am
by Con Murphy
howard male wrote:No Con, that's like blaming Nietzsche for Hitler!

History never was my strong point. Nor philosophy, or indeed politics. Or existentialism, or 60s pop music for that matter. Or song structures, or...(continued over page...)


Getting back to Music and Madmen

PostPosted: Tue Jul 12, 2005 10:48 am
by Adam Blake
Not all musicians are mad but a lot of them are. I think it's a question of having music going around in your head all the time, thinking about music all the time, AND trying to deal with the demands of the outside world with regard to mundane details like making a living and getting the laundry done. Plus, living a fairly nocturnal existence (you tend to work in the evenings) puts you out of sync with most of humanity. Plus, non-musicians (punters) tend not to realise that what you do IS WORK - because to them it's all fun and you're obviously having such fun doing it.
This puts a distance between you and "ordinary people".

All the great loonies of musical history had their reasons: from Schumann to Berlioz, Charlie Parker to Sun Ra, Syd Barrett to Brian Wilson to Lee Perry etc etc etc. I think playing music encourages "eccentric" behaviour, and the decision to seriously attempt to make a living from doing it is quite enough to send you over the edge! Conversely, I've met many professional musicians who were only interesting when actually doing their job and whose offstage conversation would threaten a shrew's
brain for occupation... (Thank you Viv Stanshall for that last one, possibly courtesy of Shakespeare) There's another one, Vivian Stanshall. A genius in my book, a raving lunatic in many others. Or both?

What I think is germane to this discussion (and I hope you've noticed I am trying to be serious here after my juvenile attempts to wind up The Beach Boys fans) is the apparent lack of modern day musical loonies. Who's out there? Someone tell me. Because an alarming proportion of my favourite music was made by nutters of one stripe or another.


PostPosted: Tue Jul 12, 2005 10:56 am
by Adam Blake
Mea Culpa! Just reading through I realised I misquoted Stanshall/ Shakespeare. The correct quote should be: "Thy wit would NOT threaten a shrew's brain for occupation!"

PostPosted: Tue Jul 12, 2005 12:02 pm
by howard male
Adam wrote-

Who's out there? Someone tell me. Because an alarming proportion of my favourite music was made by nutters of one stripe or another.

Well, there's your pal Son of Dave, Adam. He seems to have the correct ratio of inhingedness to talent. I'd be curious to know if his appearance on Later generated any extra interest and/or sales...

Other than that, I suppose we are all contributing to this forum because we've given up on western music delivering unto us, a new rock, funk, or..ehem...soul, saviour - one that hasn't been through some rigorous record company passport-control/makeover process. In other words, some eccentrically dressed desperado with a guitar permanently slung over their shoulder (although these days I suppose it'd be a laptop) and with an attitude as 'out there' as his/her talent.

Jan and Dean...

PostPosted: Tue Jul 12, 2005 9:38 pm
by David Godwin
Surf City - what a single. To a teenager in a boy's grammar school, the limited access to girls was fraught with serious issues. How do I look? What do I say? I don't really know these objects of such longing at all. But wait on - here's the answer - look what goes on in Surf City....

"there's two swinging honeys for every guy,
and all you got to do is just wink your eye"

If only it could be as easy as that; but where was that fabled land of sun, sea, sand, and, best of all, no "chatting up" into the bargain - Surf City?